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Monday, 11 February 2013

My 15 Favourite Black Sitcoms

Black sitcoms used to be good during the 1970s all the way until the early 00s. Then all of a sudden, they all dropped like flies when mainstream networks such as NBC and Fox ditched them in favour of reality shows and dramas. The Black sitcoms on Cable networks don't seem to fare well with audiences either.

In homage to the Black situation comedy and being a sitcom fan myself, here is my list of my 15 favourite Black sitcoms of all-time, with my reasons listed as to why I enjoy one of them personally.

The top 3 sitcoms I've chosen are unanimous in their positions, whilst the other 12 are interchangeable in their positions:

1. The Jeffersons  - 'We're movin' on up in the East side!' Ooh yeah! The Jeffersons was the spin-off to All In The Family created by Norman Lear. The late Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford were outstanding as couple George and Louise 'Weezy' Jefferson. Great supporting characters such as Helen & Tom Willis, Mr Whitley, Florence - the maid who would get into arguments with George-, and Lionel and Jenny, not forgetting, Ralph.

The Jeffersons is my absolute favourite African-American sitcom; it was funny, brilliantly written, great set of characters, great cast & George Jefferson will be remembered as one of the most iconic sitcom characters in history.

People were raving about this series - I've read comments online from people on how good The Jeffersons is; this was one of those shows that didn't air in the U.K, but thanks to Youtube, I manage to discover this gem. I do think it's strange that a lot of people, especially Black viewers don't realise The Jeffersons was and still is one of the longest running Black sitcoms on US TV.

I wasn't born when it first aired on CBS in the U.S, and neither was it aired in the U.K, so you're going to ask why an 80s -born child chose The Jeffersons as their favourite Black sitcom. Well, The Jeffersons is my favourite Black sitcom because a) the characters are great, b) it's funny and c) I enjoy watching the episodes. There isn't an episode that I dislike from this show.

No other Black sitcom on a major network- be it Fox, CBS, NBC, ABC- has since matched its feat.

The Jeffersons was just pure brilliance, and though whilst the latter seasons weren't as good as the earlier ones, it was still entertaining nonetheless.

2. Good Times  -  Another of Norman Lear's creations during the 1970s, it revolved around the Evans family in Chicago. Good Times was co- created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans; Mike Evans also played Lionel Jefferson, George and Louise's son in The Jeffersons. There has been working-class sitcoms during the 1970s, but Good Times was the first U.S sitcom to feature an African-American working class family as the main characters.

Although it was a sitcom, the episodes had a serious undertone to them and they mostly dealt with a range of issues, stemming from drugs to child abuse. The main comic relief came from J.J Evans, James and Florida's son and he was a bit of a buffoon, but he made the show amusing. By the early 80s and due to the death of James, Good Times lost its spark and its run was over. Not even the arrival of Janet Jackson as Penny could halt its decline.

Still, the performances all-round were fantastic and the writing was top-notch, until the last 2 seasons. The departure of James and later on Florida, with Bookman, Penny and Willona being made as central characters, didn't work. The critics said this show was pandering to stereotypes - i.e. Black people and lower class, when it was reflecting a lot of the social problems that took place in 1970s America.

The Huxtables may have been everyone's favourite Black sitcom family, but the Evans's, through its multitude of personalities and characters, demonstrated that life isn't a bed of roses, yet in spite of this, anything is possible, regardless of your social status -IF you work hard to make things happen.

3. What's Happening!!  - This show was based loosely on the movie, Cooley High that  revolved around a trio of teenagers Raj, Dwayne and Rerun aka Freddy Stubbs but moreso that of Raj- Roger Thomas as known by his mother, Mabel - his mother and younger sister, Dee. She was a character that annoyed the heck out of me. There was also Shirley, who had a few wisecracks of her own as the sassy waitress.  Really great show and one of the few Black sitcoms that centered around a single parent family, in a positive sense and to reinforce the idea that as a child raised by a single parent, this is considered as a bad thing.

When in actuality, it is not.

I may add also that Rerun was a great dancer too!

4. The Cosby Show -  The Cosby Show deserves a nod for being the first Black sitcom to have an affluent family on a TV show. Entertainment Weekly lauded the series that it helped raise the profile of Blacks on national TV, and this of which carried on with In Living Color and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It later led to a spin-off, A Different World.  This show, alongside Family Ties and Diff'rent Strokes showcased family life in a positive light, whilst maintaining it's feel-good, easy mannered charm.

5. Desmonds  -  Living in the U.K, Black sitcoms were very scarce; not many of them aired on TV. Desmonds arrived in 1989, though was filmed a year earlier, and even to this day, it is still one of the best Black sitcoms, period, for me. I rank this show up there with the African-American sitcoms I listed because it was just so brilliant. What was it that I loved about Desmonds? So many things- the cast, characters, the setting of the show in a barbershop, the story lines and Black British humour and writing at its best.

It is so good it would probably make for a good American version of Desmonds. Or maybe not.

Desmonds still holds up well after over 20 years; the humour is side-splitting at times, what with the loud audience noises in the background, but not to the extent that it becomes patronising to the viewer.

Definitely worth checking out.

6. A Different World -  This series was sort of okay, but when Debbie Allen took over, it improved throughout. It was a lot more interesting and enjoyable; I think the decision to get rid of Denise, have her move back to live with Cliff and Clair Huxtable and to retool the show to have it centered around Whitley and Dwayne, was a good move by Debbie.

The earlier seasons didn't do much for me at all. I don't remember it very well when it aired in the U.K in 1988/89; I was 7 years old, and whatever I did watch of ADW, as a child, I couldn't quite make out what it was about. But as an adult and re-watching the episodes on YouTube, I understand what it was, and why many Black viewers lauded it.  It was one of the better examples of TV shows that presented collage life in the U.S without it coming off as being 'corny'; i.e. 'Saved by the Bell-ish'. Based on some of the comments I've read online, it appears The Fresh Prince of Bel Air has a bigger following than ADW outside of the U.S. Speaking of which....

7. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air - I honestly think the reason why The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was such an accomplishment, especially for NBC, who were leading ahead of the pack compared to the other networks with Frasier and Friends, was because it connected with not just Black audiences, but with Whites, Asians, everyone. Much like with The Cosby Show. I enjoyed the first 4 seasons of this series; for me, it hit its peak during the fourth season. It was a shame the last 2 seasons felt less of a sitcom with less laughs, audiences noticing a lighter-skinned Aunt Vivian, the arrival of Nicky - which I think affected the quality of the story-lines, and the writing became way too serious and over -dramatic in parts. Had the last 2 seasons of the show been as good as or better than the first 2 seasons, then I would've rated this one higher than 7th.

8. Hangin' With Mr Cooper - In spite of the inclusion of Geneva and Nicole during seasons 2 and 3 and departure of Teacher Robin Dumars -played by A Different World's Dawnn Lewis, I still found Hangin' With Mr Cooper enjoyable and watchable. Mark Curry's colourful and zany performances as Mark Cooper brought a smile to my face, whilst Holly Robinson Peete shone as Vanessa; one of Mark's roommates & friends. Both Mark and Vanessa get together during the last season, and I thought they were rather cute as a couple. In spite of their different personalities. A lot of people stopped watching the show once they got together, apart from me. In all, Hangin' With Mr Cooper was fun and I enjoyed every bit of it. A shame about the ending though.

9.  Living Single - This was another one of those American sitcoms I had heard of, but of which never aired in the U.K. Living Single was the earlier version of Friends but with Black characters. 6 characters: 4 girls (Khadijah, Max(ine), Synclaire and Regine) & 2 guys (Overton and Kyle) shared an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. For a series that remained in the top 5 African-American ratings throughout its 5 seasons, this is quite a feat. Great ensemble, wonderful camaraderie and good chemistry. I've seen Friends but this show has something going for it; not to mention I like these characters more than the ones in NBC's offering.

10.  The Parkers - The Parkers was a hit- &- miss affair for a lot of viewers; some enjoyed it, others hated it. Sure it was silly in parts, but I never conceived The Parkers as one of those sitcoms that had a serious undertone to it or had characters that were serious in nature. It was made purely to generate laughs aplenty and wasn't a show where it made you think about things.

I thought it was hysterical and it made me laugh a lot; Mo'Nique as Nikki Parker was rather amusing - she was amusing when she was crazy and threatening when some man would try and take her 'boo', or be it the Professor Stanley Olgavee. Kim, Nikki's daughter was a dumbed- down character from the one in Moesha, Stevie was the lone White girl and T was the cool, calm and collective male; together they were also Free-style Unity, a R&B music trio. Given it was a spin-off of Moesha- which was part- sitcom, part -drama as well, I was genuinely surprised how different The Parkers was as a sitcom .

It may not have been to everyone's tastes, and the series finale was rather erratic and ridiculous, but it was for me, still a lot of fun and provided lots of funny moments.

11.  In The House - I already posted a review of this show; In The House was a good sitcom when Debbie Allen and Jeff Wood were part of the cast, but after they departed, it just wasn't the same as it was before. But the first 2 seasons were really funny and enjoyable, thanks to Debbie Allen's character, Jackie Warren. Had it not been for the departure of Jackie and her son Austin, the series would've lasted a little longer.

LL Cool J may have been the main star attraction as injured pro- footballer- turned- nanny, Marion Hill when for me, Debbie Allen made this show; she was bold, funny, sarcastic and entertaining. And though many have cited the performances by LL Cool J and Debbie as overdrawn and over-acted, I completely disagree with that notion. Especially Debbie, who having had cameos in A Different World and The Cosby Show & played slightly 'off -the- wall' characters, it was good to see her take on the role, where her character was more 'normal' than the ones she played previously and that she was able to strike a good balance between being humourous and comedic, but also serious as well. Jackie and Austin were my 2 favourite characters for 2 different reasons: Jackie for being funny, sarcastic but also caring and strict and Austin, because he experienced some of the things that I went through as a child, such as the bullying so I felt sorry for him sometimes, but he wasn't bad. Plus he looked cute!

Even though I enjoyed the first two seasons over the last two seasons of In The House, it still holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first ever show I watched with Debbie Allen in it (being born in 1981, I was too young for Fame and I wasn't too familiar with A Different World during its original run on NBC and Channel 4 in the U.K), and thus I became a fan of Debbie Allen's.

She was just awesome in this sitcom!

12. The Jamie Foxx Show - Before he made the transition to movie star,  Jamie Foxx was a fully-fledged comedian on Def Comedy Jam, not to mention he had a spell on Fox's sketch comedy series, In Living Color, playing an assortment of characters. He also had his own sitcom titled, The Jamie Foxx Show in 1996.

During the first 2 seasons, he played Jamie King: an aspiring musician from Texas, who works in L.A to pursue a music career. To support himself, he works in his aunt and uncle's hotel. His co-workers include Braxton: a bourgeois -type, who has very high standards and Francesca ''Fancy'' Monroe, the latter of whom Jamie develops a crush on during the series.

I had heard of this sitcom before but it never aired in the U.K. However, I managed to watch some episodes on YouTube and I have to say, I love it. The WB network had some so-and so sitcoms, but arguably, The Jamie Foxx Show was and is by far the best of the bunch.

It helps when many of the cast remained throughout the duration of its run and the quality of the episodes later on were very good. The whole Jamie and Fancy love interest theme, which ran throughout, was interesting. I enjoyed it and I liked them as a couple; I was glad that there was a happy ending for those two in the end. My favourite character is Braxton: he is charming, suave and I love his personality.

The performances were great and it was generally a feel-good sitcom.

In all, The Jamie Foxx Show was great fun - for one of the lesser known Black sitcoms around, it impressed me a great deal and I can understand why some people enjoyed this one.

13. The Steve Harvey Show - created by Winifred Hervey, whose previous offerings were The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and In The House, The Steve Harvey Show had a surprisingly good run of 7 seasons on the WB before its cancellation. Steve Hightower (played by Steve Harvey) is a former 70s funk legend turned music teacher/vice principal at a school in Chicago. During the series, we see him try and win back the affections of Regina (played by The Game's Wendy Raquel Robinson): Steve's ex-class mate. Support comes in the form of 3 students, namely Romeo, Bullethead and Lydia, as well as Steve's friend, Cedric (played by Cedric the Entertainer) and secretary, Lovita who becomes Cedric's girlfriend later in the series.

Though it got cancelled, 7 seasons is a respectable run and had it remained longer, it would've got stale as a show. But The Steve Harvey Show was very, very funny; Lydia cracked me up a few times and the cast were terrific.

14.  Martin - Martin, alongside Living Single were 2 of the 3 highest-rated shows for Black viewers on the Fox network back in the 90s. Martin Lawrence played a DJ named erm, Martin, who has a girlfriend named Gina (Tisha Campbell-Martin). Martin had a unique-yet different take to other sitcoms, as Martin Lawrence would play a variety of characters and wear different costumes and prosthetic makeup. One of those characters was Shenehneh: a loud, brash and very in-yer-face type of woman that plays on stereotypes of Black women, though I'm sure it wasn't done intentionally to offend. She would try and p*ss off Gina and her friend, Pam (Tichina Arnold) by goading and mocking them and who'd try to pick fights with them as well.

The humour was over-the-top and outrageous at times, but also hilarious to boot. Bill Cosby once called Martin a 'modern day minstrel'. I guess Martin's humour just wasn't to his liking. If you are able to put up with the craziness of  Martin Lawrence's characters, then Martin will be right up your alley.

15. Out All Night - Out All Night was a short-lived affair, - which bemused me given I was surprised to learn it only lasted 1 season. It was a really good sitcom. Created by Andy and Susan Borawitz, the same people who brought you The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, it had a really good cast- singer Patti Labelle, All of Us's Duane Martin, Vivica A Fox, Morris Chestnut and Simon O'Brien, who was the token White character & hailed from Britain.

The sitcom is set in the same universe as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and features appearances from numerous musical guests, such as Gladys Knight and Luther Vandross. Out All Night was also the launchpad for the careers of Morris Chestnut, Vivica A. Fox and Duane Martin, who all went on to pursue other TV and movie ventures after the end of its brief run.

It had potential and the characters could've been more developed and fleshed out, but based on that one season, it was entertaining and amusing.

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